Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the winter 2009 edition of the University of Denver Magazine. We are putting it back on the front page because Ellie Schafer is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Alumni Symposium. Get more information and register for the event here.
The text Sue Gersick got from her daughter, Ellie Schafer, last March was deceptively innocent.
“POTUS just came in and wished me happy birthday!!!”
Gersick shot back: “POTUS? Who’s POTUS?”
“PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!”
Then the pictures arrived. There was the nation’s 44th POTUS, wedged into a cramped outer office in the East Wing of the White House. He was standing with a candle-lit sheet cake drenched in milk chocolate icing with Irish-green trim, waiting to honor Schafer, the 41-year-old Pueblo, Colo., native and University of Denver graduate who lived out of a suitcase for 654 days on his advance team in an effort to get him elected.
“We figured out that I had gone around the world eight times,” says Schafer (BA ’90).
Once he was elected, Barack Obama rewarded Schafer’s loyalty by appointing her head of the eight-person White House Visitors Office. If you want to see where every president except George Washington has lived, you have to go through your congressman, the Secret Service and Ellie Schafer.
Working in the White House
She’s off the road now, working down the hall from where Franklin Roosevelt broadcast his fireside chats, Abraham Lincoln lay in state and Theodore Roosevelt’s kids raised such a ruckus that he built the West Wing to get away from them.
Her job is to make the White House what the Obamas want it to be: the most open, accessible presidential home in the nation’s history. She is the welcoming face for celebrities, dignitaries and just plain folks.
It’s a big job, and it’s a big step from hanging out in the pub in Driscoll North, which was the place to be on Wednesday nights in 1986. Or partying at Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, where big brother Tom Schafer was a member and his kid sister, Ellie, had unquestioned access. Or dropping into Fagan’s on Evans Avenue and Downing Street for beer and wings with journalism Professor Laurie Schultz after Advanced Media Criticism class.
“There was not a social situation that Ellie did not blossom in,” recalls Amy van Orman (BA ’90), still Schafer’s close friend nearly two decades later. “No matter where you went on campus, if you were with Ellie, she knew somebody. … Your circle kept getting bigger because Ellie was so good at connecting.”
- Which is how you go from grinding through homework in J-Mac to taking on the nation’s work in Washington. After all, you don’t get to run the White House Visitors Office by applying. There is no competitive exam. You land the job by winning POTUS’ trust. For Ellie Schafer, that process began in California in 2006 when she was a political consultant in San Francisco and then-Senator Obama needed logistical help for his book tour.
The connection that began with The Audacity of Hope incubated on the campaign trail and blossomed on election night 2008. As thousands of people jammed into Chicago’s Grant Park, waiting with a national TV audience to hear from the president-elect, it was Ellie Schafer who was in charge of getting the Obama family where they needed to be.
“I was in work mode the entire night and emotionally and physically exhausted,” she recalls. “I heard them call the race, but I had a job to do so I was numb to news. It wasn’t until the next morning, when I was lying in bed listening to the ‘Today Show’ and heard Matt Lauer say ‘President-elect Barack Obama,’ that it hit me. I shot out of bed and started jumping around in my PJs and cheering and hugging Julie and the dogs [Maddie and Bo].”
“Julie” is Julie Colwell, Schafer’s partner and a high school teacher in Evanston, Ill. Their relationship took root at a softball tournament in San Diego in 2005 and culminated in a formal commitment ceremony in Del Mar, Calif., on Aug. 4, 2007. Barack Obama couldn’t make it because it was his birthday. But he called.
“Ellie’s very focused, very passionate. And she knows when to laugh and not let the weight of the world get on her,” Colwell says. “She’s also a big-picture person. She sees it and breaks it down, then says, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get it working.’ Once they gave her three days to put on an event for 60,000 people. She said, ‘OK, where do you want it?’ How many people could do that?”
Almost a member of the Obama family
Schafer’s efficiency on the campaign trail proved the perfect endorsement for follow-up assignments on the transition and inauguration teams. In January, when the First Family moved into Blair House, traditionally the stepping-stone to taking over the White House, they invited Schafer to move in with them.
It was quite an honor, and symbolic of the level of trust that had developed.
“She was there with the family,” says Gersick, her proud mom. “The president’s sister was there. And some of Mrs. Obama’s family, Grandma [Marian] Robinson and Ellie and Julie. That was it.”
- Schafer ate with the family, spent time with the family and bore witness to their emergence from the mainstream of America to a special place in history. When the inauguration was over and the administration under way, Schafer took over the visitors office. In the first six months, they got 3 million tour requests, including one from actor Jimmy Smits, who had portrayed President Matt Santos on the TV show “The West Wing” but had never visited the real White House.
“We brought him in through the front entrance of the West Wing, which has the Marine on duty,” Schafer recalls. “He was like, ‘Wow!’ “You know, not a week goes by that you don’t see somebody brought to tears when they walk through these doors.”
In her 10th week on the job, Schafer supervised a White House event for 30,000 people. It was the annual Easter Egg Roll, which has been a White House staple since Rutherford Hayes was president in 1877. The kids and their families came from 48 states. They were organized on the green outside the 18-acre White House grounds, run through security magnetometers, herded into a “clean” pen, then ushered onto the South Lawn “every two hours in chunks of 6,000.”
Once inside, the kids bounced, rolled, ran, played, danced, had their faces painted and flat-out had fun. Schafer’s uncle, a 6-foot, 5-inch confirmed Republican from Greeley, Colo., got to play the Easter Bunny. And no child was lost or left behind.
“It was a long day,” she says, “but it was a blast.”
In August, when the Obamas took seven days to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Schafer’s staff threw open the White House doors to more than 36,400 visitors over five 12-hour days. It was exhausting, she says, but every person who wanted to get in was admitted. Just the way the First Family wanted it, she says. With Ellie Sue Schafer as their official smile.
“The mystique of this place has not worn off,” she says during a tour in late summer. “I still get chills just coming through the gate. Or showing someone around and saying, ‘This is George Washington’s sword.’ I’m like, George Washington’s sword! How cool is that?!”
Schafer laughs heartily, her ever-present grin seeming a mile wide. Passion for her job and the electricity she sparks could run a town.
“Seeing the look on people’s faces when they come through the doors of the White House, whether they’re a Make-a-Wish child, a celebrity, somebody here for a public tour — that you can’t buy. They’re all just, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m here.’
“If I have a bad day, it’s still a bad day … at the White House! So it’s not that bad.”
Schafer’s road to Washington
Schafer’s long, winding road to Washington started when she graduated from DU and went to work on her father’s campaign for governor of North Dakota. Ed Schafer (MBA ’70) won the race and served from 1992 to 2000.
“We really saw her talent come out in 1992,” recalls brother Tom. “[Dad] was the underdog, polling third of eight when we came to the convention. Ellie and her team had lined every route the delegates could take to the convention with yard signs. We started seeing one, then another, then another the whole way in. We got to the convention and we had more signs than anybody — more passion, more excitement, more enthusiasm. That was all her.
“She’s perfect in politics: detail-minded and a great organizer.”
By 2000, when Ellie Schafer began working for Al Gore, she already had a lot of campaign experience, having worked for a host of California candidates and advocacy issues. The Gore race led to work for John Kerry in 2004, and when Kerry announced he wouldn’t run for the White House in 2008, the Obama campaign got on the phone to her fast.
“I can’t tell you where you’re going, but are you in?” Obama’s then-political director asked. That was the winter of 2007.
“I had an inkling as to what it was about, but we never talked about it,” Schafer says. “Next thing I knew I was in Springfield [Illinois] setting up his announcement tour as part of the advance team. We were there about 10 days before he arrived.”
What followed was an unrelenting stream of travel and organization, problem-solving and working out details to make sure Obama’s campaign stops were smooth. She accompanied him to the Middle East and traveled to every state but Alaska on his behalf.
“Back then the campaign was a bunch of people huddling around a folding table and chairs. We had one printer in the middle that we shared. You’d get four rooms; one for Obama and three for everybody else.”
Quarters were close and no detail was too small. Obama once found himself in need of shaving cream and a razor, and he asked Schafer to run to the grocery store. She tossed him a bag of toiletries — his brands — and said, “There you go.”
Having a spare set was just part of the job, as was giving the candidate a sense of home on the road. She did that by arranging for Obama’s meals to be served on real dishes with real silverware. It was a little touch, but it won points. Especially when the candidate saw that everyone else was eating off paper plates.
The Obamas reciprocated.
“When they’re on the road, it’s a family affair,” Schafer says. “It’s not just ‘here’s our family and there’s the staff.’ It’s more like, ‘We’re going out to grab some burgers, does anybody need anything?’ They genuinely care.”
It was a good attitude to have in the campaign, where millions of details need attention and things can go wrong in a flash.
“Jimmy Buffett has a song called ‘No Plane on Sunday.’ You can get upset and kick your luggage and get mad, but there’s still no plane on Sunday. You might as well just make the best of it. [Buffett] has gotten me through quite a few nights on the campaign trail.”
It also helped for Schafer to stay in touch with her family, recalls stepfather Joe Gersick. Sometimes she’d call up exhausted; sometimes she’d call up to share. Never to complain. “She told us once how the staff was sitting around having a beer and Obama was talking about his ears,” Gersick recalls. “Everybody was teasing him and making fun. And Ellie was thinking, ‘This guy could be the most powerful man in the world one of these days, and we’re teasing him about his ears!’”
Networking her way to the White House
As it turned out, whether Schafer’s candidates won or lost didn’t get noticed as much as her skill in the political arts.
“I did a [district attorney's] race in San Francisco, and we ended up losing by just a couple of hundred votes,” she recalls. “I went home for Christmas and I broke down — just started crying in the shower. You’re devastated, but it opened another door for me. Somebody said, ‘You weren’t supposed to get as far as you got; you did fantastic; we’d like you to run this bigger campaign.’
“Sometimes in politics it’s not always about winning or losing. It’s really about the job you do and the choices you make.”
One of those key choices happened years earlier, when Schafer was a varsity basketball player coming out of Pueblo East. She chose not to play when she enrolled at DU, opting for softball and intramurals instead. That expanded her social and academic opportunities on campus. It was a key decision.
Throwing herself into her father’s campaign in North Dakota, where she earned real-world experience, was another key decision.
“I went into my first campaign with a chip on my shoulder — saying I wasn’t going to stuff envelopes and lick stamps — and ended up stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.”
In 1995, she moved to San Francisco for a job that evaporated when she got there. By chance, she met a group of women who invited her to join their softball team. That also was a key decision. One teammate was the political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. The others also were well-connected, and their friendship helped involve Schafer with local campaigns and opportunities. Before long, she had a thriving business as a political consultant.
How important was joining the San Francisco Gay Softball League?
“Huge,” Schafer says. “I probably wouldn’t have stayed [in San Francisco] if it wasn’t for them. They were and still are my core group of support there.”
In the end, the picture focuses like this: The 10-year-old girl whose smile adorned boxes of Mr. Bubble bubble-bath — which her grandfather’s company made — became the teenager who organized beer bottles in her family’s beverage business in Pueblo and the young adult who endured “ramen noodles days” scuffling for candidates in San Francisco.
That woman — that former queen bee of pizza nights and legal 3.2 beer in Johnson-McFarlane Hall, that unofficial sweetheart of Lambda Chi — now works in the White House, has the trust of the president and plays third base for STOTUS, the Softball Team of the United States.
“Gotta go, Bo,” she tells her dog each morning. “Gotta go make the world a better place.”